ROTC Debate About More Than DADT

(Written with guest contributor Evan Storms ’13.)

We’re just going to “come out” and say it: ROTC should be reinstituted at this university. There is no question about whether the federal government’s dubiously lawful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy of discriminating against gays and lesbians in the armed forces, ostensibly to maintain “unit cohesion,” is wrong. That’s obvious. Queer groups on campus disagree, however, on how Stanford should evaluate the reinstatement of ROTC.

One simple misunderstanding has done much to impede progress. Stanford Students for Queer Liberation (SSQL) worries that the University doesn’t see repealing DADT as a prerequisite for reinstating ROTC. A statement circulated among the group reads, “The link between DADT and ROTC at Stanford is at best, artificial, at worst, misleading. Not only do [Faculty Senate] members demonstrate an indifference to DADT, … but [they] also betray contempt for proponents of its repeal.”

Their proof? Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor of History David Kennedy’s statements to the Faculty Senate on March 4. In the meeting, Kennedy stated, “The premise that underlies our bringing this question to the Senate is the assumption that the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy’, …will probably go away within the next year or two.” This clear statement of the underlying premise of ROTC negotiations shows SSQL’s fears to be unfounded.

Since the relevant decision makers have stated that DADT must first be repealed, as the University considers allowing ROTC back on campus, it’ll have to deal with the same issues it dealt with forty years ago when it decided to ban the program. Back then, the serious concerns were more about the academic implications of the program than anti-war sentiment (or other issues). According to Kennedy, when Stanford first negotiated the ROTC presence on campus in the 60s, the major issues were the “professional status of the ROTC instructors, the departmental status of the military science departments, and the awarding of up to 27 units of academic credit for ROTC courses taken at Stanford” – not the program’s ostensible fostering of “militant ideologies.”

In 1970, when the University accepted the newly negotiated academic dimensions of ROTC, there was little concern or conversation about ROTC being primarily a “military body” on campus. In fact – and rightly so – the University saw that the presence of ROTC at Stanford ensured some degree of what Kennedy calls the “interdigitating [of] the military services and civil society in ways that ensure that the military arm does not become too separate…from the civil society in our political system.” Kennedy says that excluding ROTC from campus “makes it close to impossible for Stanford to contribute in any material way to training leaders for a very important institution in our society and one that’s not going to go away – the armed forces.”

And he’s absolutely right. Stanford has an obligation to let students participate in a program that can offer students the opportunity to become both**scholars and soldiers. Stanford should allow ROTC to have a presence on this campus to ensure that those who do choose to serve in the military are equipped to deal intellectually and comprehensively with the issues that they will face. If anti-war students fear the attrition of intellectual leadership from the armed forces, they ought to acknowledge the value of institutions of higher learning in educating the military’s leadership. The alternative is, Kennedy says, “a very dangerous development…where the military is increasingly separate from the civil society that is – theoretically, at least – its political master.”

Last time we had this debate, in the 60s and 70s, the military still drafted soldiers. Now, however, ROTC and post-ROTC military service are entirely matters of individual choice. Students can choose to participate in ROTC should it be allowed back on campus just as they can choose to serve in the military or not.

We disagree, fundamentally, with the argument that has arisen from those who would retain the policy that currently bans ROTC from this campus. The most heated opposition, in language if not numbers, to allowing the ROTC program centers on the symbolic significance of a military presence on campus.  The claim seems to be that to host an ROTC program is to implicitly endorse war, militarism, and all of the uses to which the United States military is currently being put.  In an op-ed for The Stanford Daily, Danny Colligan charges that “the gruesome reality of war” – the fact of “human beings getting killed” – is the “real problem,” and that Stanford must reject ROTC altogether.

But this profoundly misunderstands the place of ideological agency.  The military (and certainly the ROTC program) doesn’t make policy. It formulates and executes military strategy based on orders from Congress and the President. Because the military is not inherently ideological, it isn’t the proper target of ideological opposition.  It is the politicians deciding how the military is used whom we ought to blame.  They are the ones espousing, and acting upon, particular ideologies.  It makes far more sense to argue that the Stanford in Washington Program is morally problematic for connecting the University with the cause of unjust fighting.

That aside, beyond whether rejecting the ROTC program would be a legitimate political statement is the question of whether the University should be making any political statements.  Is a University-sanctioned political statement compatible with Stanford’s values of free and open intellectual discourse? For the University to endorse a particular political position is for it to claim the prerogative to make decisions on behalf of its students and faculty as to which positions are right.  And that prerogative necessarily makes the University a biased forum for ideas. Certainly, students, student groups, particular faculty, and the like have full right to make any political statements they wish.  But out of respect for that right, the University itself should issue no political statements.

How, then, should it evaluate the ROTC program?  Precisely as a program.  Stanford’s considerations should be based solely on whether ROTC is fairly administered and presents an opportunity students can benefit from, just as would its considerations of any private company’s proposal for a program on campus.  To extend its considerations beyond this, to use the ROTC program to make some political statement, would be worse than denying interested students that opportunity.  It would be an insult to the moral capacities of all students, to our ability to judge the program independently and to reach our own conclusions—all in the name of an ideological position fundamentally misapplied.

*Kyle O’Malley ’13 is a staff writer for The Stanford Review and is majoring in English; Evan Storms ’13 is undeclared. *

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